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Wine is a word that is becoming synonymous with Chile these days. Personally, the first wine I remember buying fresh out of college was Chilean Chianti in straw-wrapped bottles, and it was really cheap. It went very well with pasta, coq au vin and for making candleholders of the empty bottles afterwards. Chile now has excellent wines, as most oenophiles know, with many awards at international competitions. I would venture to say following one or more of the wine routes described below is good enough reason to visit the country, in any case. And all that marvelous scenery can be thrown in for extra effect. Appellation laws have been in effect since 1966 that divide the growing regions into with five main areas: Atacama (never used for table wine), Coquinto, Aconagua, Central Valley and Southern.

Events

In March every year, consider the Fiesta de la Vendima in Santa Cruz, Central Valley (www.colchaguavalley.cl). In the third week of March, there's a nice Harvest Festival in the Curico Valley (www.rutadelvinocurico.cl) and the annual Carmenere Festival (www.chilewineroute.cl) in the Maule Valley. Finally, on October 4 each year is the Fiesta de San Francisco de Assisi, taking place in Huerta de Maule, also in the Maule Valley, featuring a gathering of huasos (cowboys) for horse-related events, including a race around the town square.

Concha y Toro

About a 60-minute drive southeast of Santiago, in Pirque, you'll find the Concha y Toro Winery (since 1883), home to one of Chile's most famous labels. Here you can visit the villa (1875), a park, the Pirque Wine Cellar and the rows of bottles in the Casillero del Diablo (Cellar of the Devil). Their wines come from grapes grown in several locales, including the Casablanca Valley and the Maipo Valley, and include such favorites as the cabernet sauvignon Casillero del Diablo (which they say is the best value on earth at about $10) and Trio (blended) labels, and single-variety names such as Don Melchor (cabernet sauvignon) and Amelia (chardonnay). This year the big fuss is over their Terrunyo wines (cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and sauvignon blanc), which are getting between 90 and 93 points from the Wine Spectator.

It might make you feel comfortable to know that Concha y Toro was the first winery in the world to trade its shares on the New York Stock Exchange (since 1994). They work with the Baron Philippe de Rothschild winery in France and Concha is the only Latin American winery member of the Club de Marques, an alliance of some of the world's most prestigious wine brands. Tours operate daily except Sundays and holidays, and you should reserve at least four days in advance. Fee is 6,000 pesos ($11.30), which includes the tour, a gift wine glass and two tastings. Phone them at 56-24/765-269; www.conchaytoro.com.

Wine Routes

There are many wine routes of one sort or another around the country, but space allows mentioning only the eight most important. Note that although there are 11 growing regions, three are without a formal appellation: Itata Valley (tiny, east of the Maule Valley), the Eiqui Valley (in the far north), and the Bio Bio & Malleco Valley (in the far south).)

From Santiago, you can easily visit the Aconcagua Valley, about 75 miles north, where you can stop in at four wineries on the Aconcagua Wine Route. The trip takes about five hours, including a stop at the Vina Errazuriz cellars (founded in 1870). Contacts: tel. 56-94/790-278; www.aconcaguavinos.cl (Spanish only).

Also easily accessible from Santiago is the San Antonio-Leyda Valley (look for whites such as sauvignon blanc), about 25 miles from Casablanca, one of the newest and smallest wine areas in Chile. Two vineyards allow visits. Contact www.winesofchile.org.

The bigger Maipo River Valley, about 45 miles southeast from the capital, has the greatest grape growing and winemaking tradition in the country, tourism officials say, and also that it is the most famous internally. This area has 17 wineries producing distinguished red wines and you can also enjoy good rafting on the river here. The Alto Maipo Valley Wine Route contact info is tel. 56-93/519-187; www.maipoalto.com (Spanish only).

Then there's the Cachapoal Valley, 52 miles southwest of Santiago, with eight to ten wineries on the route, and at least one fine restaurant and an abandoned mining town named Sewell. Contact them at 56-8/232-1399 or at www.casablancavalley.cl.

Consider, too, the Limari Valley Wine Route, consisting of three wineries, namely Casa Tamaya, Francisco de Aguirre and Tabali. The area also produces good goat cheese and olive oil. This is a few hours north of Santiago. Contact them at www.tamaya.cl, www.tabali.cl or www.vinafranciscodeaguirre.cl.

Way down south of Santiago (124 miles) is the Curico Valley Wine Route, with 15 wineries, contact tel. 56-75/328-972; www.rutadelvinocurico.cl.

The Maule Valley Wine Route offers daily winery tours from the Villa Huilquilemu, a national monument. The area is about 155 miles south of Santiago, still in the Central Valley. There are 15 member wineries, and this is a good place to explore the outdoors with mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing trips and spas after you savor the wine. Contact them at tel. 56-94/525-424; www.chilewineroute.cl.

The Colchagua Valley is the home of the huaso cowboy and farmer, similar to the Argentine gaucho in appearance and attitude, locals boast. It is also home to good red wines ("the country's finest reds," says Wines of Chile), such as cabernet sauvignons and syrah, as well as South America's finest Malbecs, attributed, they say, to the valley's mild Mediterranean-type climate. There are 32 wineries here, 14 of which have tours, local authorities say. The Ruta del Vino in the Colchagua region, and based in Santa Clara, provides information about the 14 vineyards, with guided tours in English to at least ten. Tours to three vineyards cost upwards from 25,000 pesos ($47.20) and sometimes include lunch. Try to reserve before the day you want to go. Contact them at tel. 56-72/823-199; www.rutadelvino.cl or www.colchaguavalley.cl.

One of the better vineyards here is that of Viu Manent (in the same Viu family since 1935), where tours/tastings are organized at 8,000 pesos ($15) four times daily, and there is a good restaurant and a fine gift shop. They drive you through a corner of the vineyards (past their helicopter) in a horse-drawn carriage as part of the tour. Carretara del Vino Km. 37, tel. 56-72/930-323; www.viumanent.cl.

At Viña Santa Cruz, you can take a cable railway to a replica of an indigenous village, named Puerta del Sol. Also a restaurant, wine museum and crafts shop, bilingual tours, and cooking classes (the latter by arrangement). More info at tel. 56-72/941-122; www.vinasantacruz.cl (Spanish only).

You can try the steam-powered Wine Train here (Tren del Vino), operating out of San Fernando since 2003 and taking about eight hours (including a stop for lunch). The cost is 45,000 pesos ($85), another 8,000 pesos ($15) if you want transfers to and from Santiago. Naturally, the cost includes wine tasting on the train itself and snacks, and it operates on Saturdays, if all goes well. More information at tel. 56-24/707-403; www.trendelvino.com or www.trendelvinochile.cl.

Chile's Greatest Private Museum

The Museo de Colchagua (named for a local tribe) is without doubt the greatest private museum in Chile, and it's only 11 years old. Based on the private collections of a locally-raised millionaire, it is second only in size to the Natural History Museum in Santiago, with 10,000 pieces, they say, some allegedly dating back 300 million years. I was impressed by pre-Columbian mummies, a big collection of insects in amber (said to be around 45 million years old and the only collection of this stuff in South America), a display of Andean jewelry and what is said to be the world's largest collection of silver produced by the local Mapuche tribe. In outer buildings and yard are old cars, agricultural machines and a train. More museum info at tel. 56-72/821-050 or www.museocolchagua.cl

The great disadvantage of the museum is its nearly total lack of any English language signs and explanations, though there is an English audio device for rent at 2,000 pesos ($3.75). A Chilean associate (who asked to remain nameless) told me the museum's owner, Carlos Cardoen, promised he wouldn't put in English signage until he was allowed back in the United States, where he would like to pursue wine alliances with producers in the Napa Valley (and where he attended the University of Utah as a young man).

Unknown to most travelers to Santa Clara and the Colchagua Valley is the role played by Carlos Cardoen, a man wanted by the US Customs Office on charges relating to his role as an international arms dealer and manufacturer (there's a $500,000 reward). He owns the Colchagua Museum, the nearby Hotel Santa Clara Plaza and the charming Wine Train, the latter modeled after Napa Valley's successful choo-choo. His crime was collaborating with the Reagan administration's CIA in providing deadly cluster bombs to Iraq during the period in the 1980s when the U.S. wanted to help Iraq in its long-term battle with Iran. He is bitter over the U.S. Justice Department having indicted him after he claimed he cooperated with the CIA for years in manufacturing and shipping the bombs, helping them to break U.S. law and using American technology to do so. Señor Cardoen's tourism-related conglomerate, AlmaCruz, has its own website, www.almacruz.cl.

Lodging

In Santa Clara, the place to be is the Santa Clara Plaza Hotel, built in 2000 but looking like an old Colonial-style villa. The 85 rooms are decorated in Colonial style, and you have a choice of restaurants (one Chilean, the other Italian/Spanish) in the hotel, as well as use of the pool and sauna. Location: Plaza de Armas 286, tel. 56-72/821-010; www.hotelsantacruzplaza.cl.

Contacts

The primary source of information on wine routes is Wines of Chile, with branches in the U.S. and U.K. Their website is www.winesofchile.org. The U.S. branch is in New York, tel. 866/461-WINE; email info@winesofchileusa.com.

More on Chile itself is available at www.visit-chile.org.

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